Residents near Exide say in survey they want action on lead

L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis speaks in Boyle Heights on June 30, 2017 about the results of a community outreach survey on contamination from the former Exide Technologies battery recycling facility in Vernon.
L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis speaks in Boyle Heights on June 30, 2017 about the results of a community outreach survey on contamination from the former Exide Technologies battery recycling facility in Vernon.
Jenny Lower/KPCC

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Three-quarters of people living near the old Exide Technologies battery recycling plant in Vernon say they are concerned they or someone in their home might get lead poisoning from living in the neighborhood, but about as many said no one in their home has had their blood tested for lead.

These are among the main findings from a community health survey conducted earlier this month in the communities of Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, East L.A., Huntington Park, Maywood and Vernon by the Los Angeles County Health Agency and L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis.

On June 10, more than 1,500 outreach workers from the health agency, other county departments and community organizations visited 16,000 households and conducted more than 4,200 surveys in English and Spanish. They also listened to residents' concerns, provided them with health information and connected them with other resources and services.

The survey results reflect residents' fears about their health, but also their frustration with the shortage of information about the safety of their homes and the slow pace of the state's cleanup of their yards and neighborhood.

"I'm upset because this report just solidifies what a lot of us already know," Solis said during a press conference Friday morning. "People can't wait: This is a ticking time bomb."

During its three decades of operation, the Exide plant spewed chemicals into the air, including lead, which settled into nearby yards, playgrounds and gardens. The survey found that while 65 percent of respondents said the state Department of Toxic Substances Control has tested their yard for lead, more than half of those said they had not received the test results.

In response, DTSC spokesman Abbott Dutton said contractors so far have sampled soil from 8,221 parcels and mailed results to almost 60 percent of those. Dutton says the agency plans to sample soil from 1,908 more parcels.

"The remaining results are being mailed out on a rolling basis each week, and DTSC is holding regular workshops to help residents read their sampling results," Dutton said in an email.

The survey results also reveal many in the community are at greater risk for health problems associated with exposure to the chemicals, including lead and arsenic.

In nearly half the homes included in the survey, children under six years old either live there or spend time in the house or yard. Pregnant women either live or spend time in nearly one in 10 homes covered by the survey.

Exposure to lead increases kids' risk of brain and nervous system damage, slows growth and development, and causes learning, behavior, hearing and speech problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC says there is no safe blood lead level for kids.

Lead exposure puts pregnant women at risk for miscarriage, can cause babies to be born too early or too small and can lead to physical and developmental problems, according to the CDC.

Most residents reported being concerned about developing lead poisoning or cancer from living in the neighborhood, but just a quarter of respondents said they had sought medical care for their health concerns. Nearly half said they'd like a public health nurse to follow up with them regarding these concerns.

Solis asked the L.A. County Department of Public Health to consider using mobile units so that the community can receive information about blood-lead screening and other health services.

The survey also includes recommendations from the community. Residents want support getting affordable health care and social services, and suggest local health providers be more aware of local health issues so they can direct patients to screening for lead poisoning and other issues.

Residents also recommended the county public health department work with community organizations, doctors and schools to increase children's access to blood-lead screening and other services, including nutrition programs and screening programs for developmental and cognitive growth.

They also called on DTSC to immediately provide residents with soil test results in English and Spanish.

Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health, said the results are spurring the county to action and she hopes it does the same for the state.

"People who live here have a sense of urgency," she said. "I'm hoping that the data in the report expresses that sense of urgency and that the state can move quickly to… start cleaning up at a large scale."

The state originally required soil testing and cleanup only in neighborhoods adjacent to the plant. But Gov. Jerry Brown last April signed emergency legislation approving an infusion of $176.6 million to test for and remove lead from thousands of properties in an expanded 1.7-mile radius.

DTSC expects to release its Environmental Impact Report and cleanup plan for the area in the next few weeks, Dutton said.